Book Review: In Morocco

In Morocco, by Edith Wharton

In writing this book, the author, a noted American novelist most famous for works like The Age Of Innocence and the incomplete The Buccaneers, provides a worthwhile service in making an early travelogue for the nation of Morocco. It is striking that while travel to Morocco is by no means unusual at this time, that the area around the country, both in Mauretania and Western Sahara, is still very much off-limits to most travelers, and forbidding because of its political situation. What this book offers is something that was possible for a certain curious and cosmopolitan traveler to offer in the first half of the 20th century but which is not something that would be acceptable today, and that is a work that shows an interest and appreciation for other cultures while maintaining a simultaneous appreciation for one’s own cultural background as tourists of American or European backgrounds. This book begins with a dedication from the author to a French colonial official who is praised for his enlightened colonial efforts, demonstrating that the author has a nuanced appreciation of the superiority of benevolent and indirect imperial rule to more oppressive and destructive direct rule. This sort of nuanced appreciation of a wise imperial administrator is not something that is within the capacity of most educated people in the contemporary age, one of the areas that we have declined from even the comparatively recent past of only a century ago.

This book is a short one of less than 150 pages, but it is justly considered a classic of travel writing. The first 75 pages of the book or so are spent in the author’s actual travels, given in a rough order of her travels from the north to the south of the French controlled area of the nation. She begins with a discussion of her travels and observations and reflections of Rabat and Sale (1). After that comes a discussion of the Roman ruins at Volubilis, the Moroccan city of Moulay Idriss, and Meknez (2). This is followed by a discussion of Fez (3), and then Marrakesh (4), which leads the author to reflect upon the mixed nature of the Berber population and indeed the Moroccan population as a whole, including some forthright commentary on the slavery that existed within the country at the time. After this the author changes gears, spending a whole chapter talking about an interesting experience where the author spent time visiting a harem (5), and reflected on the limited intellectual horizons of the women who spent their whole lives in seclusion, except for the intelligent queen mother who served as an advisor for her son. After this an entire chapter is spent praising the efforts of one General Lyautey to pacify and rule over Morocco during the period in which the French established their protectorate over the country in the early 1900’s, the sort of praise that we would not expect too many people to give today (6). The book then closes with a sketch on Moroccan history (7), looking at its various dynastic periods, as well as some notes on Moroccan architecture (8), and a list of books consulted by the author.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is an area that the author does not talk about at all–the city of Casablanca, which is one of the most important cities as far as most travelers to Morocco. In general, this book is written with the self-aware perspective of someone who is writing about a world that is soon to vanish. The author correctly notes that Morocco was at the time just beginning to open up to Western travelers, and that while Western travelers would see more of the country, they would not see it with the fresh perspective and fresh responses that Wharton did as among the earliest Western travelers to the area. There are ways, though, that the author does not predict the Morocco she saw as a vanishing one. One can easily imagine that slavery soon went underground in the face of growing desires on the part of Western nations to encourage the cultural development of areas under its influence. The Jewish community in Morocco that was so vibrant in Wharton’s time as a traveler has now vanished along with that of many other communities in the area in the face of rising Muslim hostility to Judaism. Similarly, while Morocco’s fortunes as an independent nation were at a low ebb during this time, Morocco would later become an imperial nation once again as it had been earlier in its history regarding Western Sahara, which is a story for another time, I suppose.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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